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“My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.” — John 10:27-28
Ask the Sheep
On a dark night in August of 1971, after an eye-opening summer mission experience in Indonesia, I boarded a plane from Jakarta to Bombay (now Mumbai).
During a two-hour layover in Bangkok, I wandered among the various airport shops before pausing at an intriguing kiosk to purchase a belt reportedly made from cobra skin. The young woman behind the counter giggled self-consciously as I paid for the belt. Finally, she covered her mouth and tittered: “Tee hee – you Glen Campbell!”
Campbell’s music was very popular in the Far East during the early 1970s, and at the time I wore contact lenses, had a similar hairstyle, and played guitar. I smiled at the young lady, sang the first line of “By the time I get to Phoenix,” and returned to the plane, leaving her wondering if I was the real deal.
Have you ever seen someone that you thought might be a celebrity, but you weren’t sure, and you were afraid to ask? Those who pressed Jesus in today’s text were not at all shy about asking if he might be more than an ordinary man. Could he really be the Messiah?
“Tell us!”(vv. 22-24)
Much of John’s gospel is built around the context of the Jewish festivals of worship such as Passover and Tabernacles. The context of today’s text is the “Feast of Dedication.” This festival, also called “Hanukkah,” was held in the Jewish month of Chislev (2 Macc. 1:9), roughly equivalent to mid-November to mid-December on the Roman calendar. The Feast of Dedication celebrated a series of victories by the Maccabeans, a heroic family who had spearheaded a drive for Jewish independence in the second century B.C.E.
Prior to the Maccabean uprising, Israel had been ruled by the notorious Antiochus Epiphanes, whose Syrian (or “Seleucid”) army wrought horrible deprivations upon the Jewish people. According to the Books of the Maccabees, the cruel ruler outlawed the worship of Yahweh, and from 167-164 B.C.E. he profaned the temple in Jerusalem by erecting a pagan image on the altar and slaughtering pigs there (1 Macc. 1:54, 2 Macc. 6:1-7). This is probably what was referred to by the “abomination of desolation” spoken of in Dan. 9:27 and Matt. 24:15.
Syrian rule came to an end when Judah the son of Mattathias, a Jewish priest, led a successful revolt. Afterward, the Jews cleansed the temple and rebuilt the altar. On the 25th of Chislev, three years after its desecration, they rededicated the restored temple (1 Macc. 4:41-61). The celebration lasted for eight days. Today’s Hanukkah festivities continue to commemorate that “Feast of Dedication.”
During that joyous season, a group of Jewish leaders confronted Jesus as he was walking inside a section of the temple known as “Solomon’s Porch” or “Solomon’s Colonnade,” a row of impressive columns that supported a roof. A nice element of local color is evident: the colonnade was open on the inside toward the temple, but closed on the outside. It was on the east side of the temple, one of the few places that provided shelter from the biting east wind that could sweep across the desert in winter. In cold weather, it was the natural place to be.
Those who confronted Jesus asked a question that the Synoptic Gospels put only in the mouth of the high priest (e.g., Luke 22:67), but which John’s gospel credits to “the Jews” in general. They had never seen anyone act as Jesus did, healing the sick and teaching with authority. Yet, Jesus would not publicly claim the title of Messiah. Thus, “the Jews gathered around him” and confronted Jesus with the question: “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly” (v. 24). The Greek term “Christ” is equivalent to the Hebrew word “Messiah” — both mean “anointed.”
The leaders of Israel appear to have thought Jesus was playing games or intentionally fostering uncertainty, and they wanted to end it. If he indeed claimed to be the Messiah, they wanted him to admit it, so they could test his claim and deal with him one way or the other. The phrase translated “keep us in suspense” is a Greek idiom that literally means “take up our life,” and sometimes carried the connotation of annoying or provoking, as in “wasting our time.”
We can understand the Jewish leaders’ concern. Jesus worked miracles and taught with authority, characteristics one would expect in the long-awaited Messiah. But, one would not expect the Messiah to couch his ministry in such mystery. They wanted a clear answer. Sometimes we also may wish for some sort of sign to prove that God exists, but God is not in the “signs on demand” business: faith is required.
“I told you!”(vv. 25-26)
Jesus’ examiners asked for a straight answer as to whether he was the Messiah, but his answer was not the “yes” or “no” they had requested. “I did tell you,” Jesus said, “but you do not believe. The miracles I do in my Father’s name speak for me, but you do not believe because you are not my sheep” (vv. 25-26). Jesus insisted that it was not necessary for him to make a public claim to being the Messiah —did not the miraculous deeds that he did in God’s name speak for him?
In Matthew’s gospel, John the Baptist had also sent messengers to ask the same question, and Jesus had given a similar answer, pointing to his mighty works (Matt. 11:2-6). Did not his awesome abilities say all that needed to be said?
In effect, then, Jesus refused to deny his role as the Messiah, but also refused to apply the epithet to himself. Regarding Jesus as the messiah is not a matter of public declaration, but of private belief. Those who questioned Jesus did not believe, he said, because they did not belong to him – they were not his sheep.
The Old Testament used shepherd language when referring to the Davidic king as well as to God. Related readings were popular during the feast of Dedication, so it was only natural for Jesus to use the shepherd metaphor, which he had already employed extensively just prior to the confrontation in the temple (vv. 1-21). Jesus had spoken in parables of the sheep-gate and the shepherd (vv. 7-10, 11-16). Now he had more to say about the sheep themselves.
The fourth century church father John Chrysostom argued that those who don’t follow Jesus do not refuse to do so because he is not the shepherd, but because they are not sheep. They do not believe Jesus because they do not belong to him. They are not of his flock.
Chrysostom’s argument sounds a bit like the old question of which came first: the chicken or the egg? Do non-Christians fail to believe because they don’t belong, or do they not belong because they don’t believe? What do you think?
“I hold you”(vv. 28-30)
Jesus went on to speak plainly about the relationship between himself and his followers, continuing to use the metaphor of a shepherd and his sheep: “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand” (vv. 27-28).
William Hull once pointed to a beautiful balance described in v. 27: the sheep hear the shepherd’s voice (i.e., they are open to the gospel message), and they learn that Jesus already knows them. Convinced of Christ’s care, they follow him in a relationship of trust. As they follow, Jesus gives to them eternal life, which no one can destroy. Thus, Jesus describes the dynamics of discipleship with a series of effective verbs: the sheep hear and follow, while the shepherd knows and gives. “We listen but he speaks; we ask but he knows; we follow but he leads; we receive but he gives” (William E. Hull, “John,” in The Broadman Bible Commentary, Vol. 9 [Nashville: Broadman Press, 1970], 308).
With vv. 29-30, Jesus amplifies his teaching while also indirectly addressing the issue of messiahship: “My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.” Those who trust in Christ are secure because their shepherd protects them, and they can trust the shepherd because he is one with God the Father. To trust in Jesus is to trust in God.
John’s intent is not so much to reflect on metaphysical or mystical aspects of the relationship between the Father and the Son as it is to emphasize the effective line of defense that protects Jesus’ sheep. In this regard, “the Father” and “the Son” are of one mind and purpose, loving and caring for the sheep.
We should be careful, when reading this promise, that we do not presume too much. Jesus does not promise that the sheep will never be harmed or face difficult trials. He does not promise that they will not be cold or hungry or misunderstood. What he promises is that he will give to them eternal life, and that no one can snatch them out of the Father’s hand. Jesus was speaking of eternal security, not temporal ease. Yet, that very hope gives us strength to face hard days, as Paul likewise testified: neither death, nor life, nor any power in heaven or earth can separate us from the abiding love of God (Rom. 8:38-39).
Sometimes it’s good to be a sheep. NFJ
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Adult Teaching Resources
Download the PDF for April 17, 2016 teaching resources. This PDF contains the FIT Teaching Guide, Digging Deeper, and Hardest Question pages.
Read Scripture online: John 10:22-30
In this passage from John, Jesus uses the metaphor of sheep following a shepherd for protection and guidance. There is a promise of eternal life but not a promise that their current life will become easier. There are times when our teenagers want to be kept safe and feel protected and follow their roles as sheep rather well. There are other times, though, that our teenagers want to be the shepherds and not the sheep. They feel like the can guide and live their own lives without the help of a shepherd, and to some degree they are correct. Unlike Jesus’ metaphor, our teenagers will become shepherds, and we want them to become shepherds, instead of remaining sheep. So as your teenagers seek to be more of a shepherd than a sheep, give them the freedom to do so, but still continue to shepherd over them as well. Allow them to shepherd, but also guide them as they make their mistakes. Bring them back into the flock to protect them and love them, instead of casting them out to the wolves.
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“I Am Iron Man” from Iron Man via www.youtube.com
Read Scripture online: John 10:22-30